Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Summer Vacation: A Family Pilgrimage to America’s Founding Churches

Susan and I have for years wanted to take our three children on a pilgrimage to America’s founding churches. A church-benefit auction at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, where I teach Sunday school and my wife serves on the board of trustees, gave us the opportunity to bid on two weeks in a cabin on a Middleton, Massachusetts beaver bond. We jumped at the opportunity to bid – and we won. The five of us would be spending two weeks in Massachusetts, visiting New England’s historic churches, and touring colleges that might interest our daughters, ages 16 and 14. We hoped our son of eight years would find some fun along the way.

Susan and I planned our two-week vacation to allow three Sundays in Massachusetts, that we might join Sunday services with the congregations of three of America’s founding churches: the First Parish Church in Plymouth, the First Church in Boston, and the First Church in Salem. The Wednesday midday services at King’s Chapel would permit us to join a fourth of America’s historic congregations in our brief visit to New England. And public tours of the United First Parish Church of Quincy would give us the opportunity to visit the crypts of President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams, President John Quincy Adams, and First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams.

The Unitarian Vatican

Our family vacation began with three nights in Boston, at the Eliot & Pickett House, just behind the national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations at 25 Beacon Street, on the Boston Common, and next door to the Massachusetts State House. Soon we were referring (tongue in cheek) to the complex of 25 Beacon Street, with its adjacent Elliot and Pickett House, as “the Unitarian Vatican.” We found ourselves within walking distance not only of the First Church in Boston and King’s Chapel, but also of the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing’s congregation, theArlington Street Church, which dates to 1729, and which was known as the “Federal Street Church” when Channing held the pulpit).

First Church in Boston (gathered 1630)

“The history of the First Church in Boston is the spiritual history of New England and the record of intellectual and religious growth,” according to Rev.Samuel A. Eliot’s 1910 compilation of Unitarian biography, Heralds of a Liberal Faith: The Prophets. So my family naturally made a point of joining the First Church in Boston for Sunday services on August 3.

This is the congregation that first gathered in 1630, when John Winthrop and his band of Puritans stepped off the Arbella, to build their shining “city upon a hill.”

It is the same congregation, moreover, that the Rev. Charles Chauncy served from 1727 to 1787, as a patriot minister whose liberal sermons helped lay the groundwork for revolution and independence, and whose liberal theology Jonathan Rowe has noted on this blog.

The patriot Rev. Chauncy preached in 1767: “It may be relied on, our people would not be easy, if restrained in the exercise of that liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free; yea, they would hazard everything dear to them – their estates, their very lives – rather than to suffer their necks to be put under that yoke of bondage which was so sadly galling to their fathers, and occasioned their retreat into this distant land, that they might enjoy the freedom of men and Christians.”

The 1910 compilation of Unitarian biographies, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, notes that “Dr. Chauncy became the best known of the liberal leaders in the Massachusetts churches before Channing. He was the representative scholar of the earlier liberal movement, as Jonathan Mayhew was the representative orator.” Thus it was that Chauncy, as Boston’s most influential minister, “affirmed the restoration of all souls, denied the Calvinistic doctrines about the future punishment, and questioned the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Governor Winthrop’s statue stands today outside his First Church’s current structure, which today accommodates the merged congregations of the First and Second Churches in Boston – the Second or “North” Church being a 1649 offshoot of First Church, where the Rev. Increase Mather and Cotton Mather held the pulpit in its early days, and where the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson would preach, from 1829 to 1832.

I suspect that Emerson would be gratified to know that the church’s office today features a portrait of his predecessor in the pulpit, the Puritan Rev. Increase Mather, on one wall, contemplating a statue of the Buddha standing against the far wall.

For this is a liberal congregation, that remains a beacon for the world, upholding freedom of conscience and affirming the worth and dignity of all its members, male and female, straight and gay. On an earlier visit to Boston, I met Carlos French at First Church. An active member of the congregation, Carlos married his partner Anthony Gomez at First Church on May 22, 2004.

On August 3, when my family joined the congregation for Sunday worship services, the First Church in Boston lent its pulpit to summer minister Molly Housh, a Harvard Divinity student who promises to be an extraordinary Unitarian Universalist Minister, and whose sermon “Standing on Shaky Ground”, celebrated faith in times of vicissitude and uncertainty -- and had us all singing Shel Silversteian’s poem “I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor.”.

We had the pleasure of meeting briefly with First Church’s senior ministerRev. Stephen Kendrick, who missed the post-service coffee hour because he was accommodating the U.S. State Department by welcoming and meeting with a delegation of Islamic theologians from Turkey.

All of this was exciting for Susan and me and, I hope, for our daughters – but it was a bit much for my eight-year-old son Loren. As we left the First Church in Boston, Loren remarked “this really isn’t my idea of a vacation.”

King’s Chapel (organized 1686)

We rewarded Loren with the midday service at King’s Chapel on Wednesday, August 6.

King’s Chapel began, of course, as New England’s first Anglican church, organized in 1686, to the displeasure of Boston’s Puritan Congregationalists. Construction of the current stone structure began in 1749, and was completed in 1754.

If the liberal theology and preaching of Boston’s patriot Congregationalist ministers, such as First Church’s Rev. Charles Chauncy and West Church’s Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, fostered the intellectual climate that produced the American Revolution, the Revolution itself moved King’s Chapel into the liberal camp after its theologically orthodox Tory rector, the Rev. Henry Caner and the British loyalists among its members fled Boston for London in 1776. With the loyalist Tories gone, funeral services could be held at King’s Chapel for the patriot General Joseph Warren, who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill. With King’s Chapel’s Tory connections severed, Boston’s revolutionaries spoke of the “Stone Chapel” during the War for Independence. But this place of worship for American revolutionaries would later reclaim its name, “King’s Chapel,” in homage no longer to a British monarch, but to a far higher King.

During the Revolutionary War, the remaining members of the King’s Chapel congregation were joined for worship services by temporarily displaced members of the Old South Meeting House. And when the Old South congregation departed after the war, the King’s Chapel’s wardens hired a recent Harvard graduate, James Freeman as a reader, agreeing to his insistence that he not be required to read the Athanasian creed. The congregation subsequently authorized Freeman to revise the church’s liturgy, and ordained him as its minister. Based on the Rev. James Freeman’s revision of the liturgy in 1785, removing all Trinitarian references, King’s Chapel proudly calls itself the “First Unitarian Church in North America.” Thus, wrote its minister and historian Rev. William Francis Pitt Greenwood in 1833: “The first Episcopal Church in New England, became the first Unitarian Church in America.”

King’s Chapel was, perhaps, the first American church to call itself “Unitarian.” Yet it’s clear that many of Massachusetts’ oldest Congregational churches already had strong liberal leanings, and that King’s Chapel’s adoption of a Unitarian liturgy in 1785 likely reflected what had already become the prevailing religious spirit in revolutionary Boston. Indeed, the Rev. Dr. James Freeman himself declared that the great patriot, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, “may with justice be denominated the first preacher of Unitarianism in Boston.” And Katherine Lee Bates, best known and loved for penning “America the Beautiful,” wrote in her treatise on American Literature that “Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, an eloquent patriot who died ten years before the pealing of the Liberty Bell, was the Unitarian pioneer of New England. Some twenty years after his death, King’s Chapel put forth a liturgy, drawn up by Rev. James Freeman, from which all Trinitarian expressions were omitted.”

Rev. Mayhew is best known, of course, as the patriot minister who in a 1750 sermon coined the phrase “no taxation without representation.” In New England, at least, liberal theology and revolutionary politics were intimately intertwined. New England’s rigid Puritanism had evolved into a liberal Unitarian theology that sowed the seeds of revolution in politics, as well as in religion.

King’s Chapel to this day follows a revised Episcopal liturgy, based upon its Book of Common Prayer. My family was privileged on August 6 to hear a sermon at King’s Chapel delivered by a guest to its pulpit, the Rev. Claire Feingold Thoryn, who serves as assistant minister of the First Parish in Lincoln, a congregation dating to the 1740s. Her recent sermons may be found here.

We were sorry we could not witness a wedding at the historic church. On June 22, 2004, Massachusetts’s former Governor, William Weld, read the homily at the wedding of two members of his Republican administration: Chief of Staff Kevin Smith and Revenue Comissioner Mitchell Adams. Declaring the Republican Party a “big tent,” Governor Weld told the press that he was “proud and happy” that Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, whom he appointed, had ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry.

Following the not-quite-so-historic August 6 midday service that we were privileged to join, my family took the tour of King’s Chapel, which happens to be the fifth stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail. Our eight-year-old enjoyed seeing the governor’s pew, where George Washington once sat.

Adjacent to the church is Boston’s oldest cemetery, the King’s Chapel Burying Ground,with headstones from the 1600s. Our daughters particularly enjoyed the Joseph Tapping stone, with its personificaton of Death and Time. More recently, the remains of the Rev. Rhys Williams, who served as minister of the First Church in Boston for forty years, were interred in the small cemetery in 2003, “next to the graves of John Cotton, the second minister of First Church, and John Winthrop, the first governor of the Commonwealth, in the plot owned by [First] Church.”

Touring 25 Beacon Street

The following day, on Thursday August 7, my friend John Hurley was kind enough to give our family a full tour of 25 Beacon Street, the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. John is the denomination’s Director of Communications.

Highlights of the tour included the memorial to civil-rights martyrs murdered in Alabama in 1965: Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and the Reverend James Reeb.

John recounted for my children how in February of 1965, Alabama State Troopers suppressing a civil rights demonstration had shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Deacon of St. James Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King called for clergy of all faiths to come to Selma, many Unitarian Universalist ministers answered the call. Among them was the Rev. James Reeb, a member of Boston’s Arlington Street Church and former minister of Washington, D.C.’s All Souls Church, who had left the pulpit to work with Boston’s poor. Shortly after his arrival in Selma, Reeb was set upon and murdered by Klansmen.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King eulogized Rev. Reeb as a man “martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers,” whose only “crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.” The Rev. Reeb, Dr. King declared, “symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation.”

When Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist housewife and mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, read of Rev. Reeb’s martyrdom, she knew she had to go to Selma herself, to carry on the struggle for racial justice. And on March 24, 1965, she too was murdered by Klansmen.

At the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, we could perceive a connection between the liberal theology and values of America’s founding churches and the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s. We had seen the Arlington Street Church, on the other side of Boston Common and the Public Garden, which had first gathered in 1729, where William Ellery Channing held the pulpit from 1803 to 1843, and where Rev. James Reeb had, before his martyrdom, been an active member. We knew that Rev. Reeb also had served as an associate minister at Washington, D.C.’s All Souls Church, of which John Quincy Adams had been a founding member in 1821, carrying to the nation’s capital his family’s Unitarian faith.

Here at 25 Beacon Street, the memorial to Jackson, Reeb, and Liuzzo, showed the link between the liberal churches of America’s founding era, and struggle for social justice in the 1960s – and beyond.

John also showed us complete runs of the Universalist Magazine, which began in 1819, and the Unitarian Christian Register, which began publishing in 1821 and subsequently took the name Christian Examiner. After some name changes over the years, they had united in 1961 with the union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations, and continue today under the name UU World, carrying the beacon of freedom of conscience, and continuing our liberal churches’ struggle for social justice.

First Parish Church in Plymouth (gathered 1606)

My family’s second Sunday in Massachusetts gave us the opportunity to join the worship services at the First Parish Church in Plymouth, “at the top of town square since 1620.”

This is the congregation that gathered in Scrooby, England in 1606, that worshiped in exile in Holland, that sailed on the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and that celebrated the First Thanksgiving in 1621.

On the wall of the sanctuary we could see the words of John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ spiritual leader, who in July of 1620 declared to those departing for the New World that “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”

Robinson told his followers to follow their own reason, emphasizing that revelation is not closed, and that they should keep their minds and spirits open to new truths. As recounted by Edward Winslow, Robinson insisted in July of 1620 that his own congregation should “follow him no further than he followed Christ; and if God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received. Here also he put us in mind of our church covenant, at least that part of it whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. For, saith he, it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.”

Robinson died before he could follow his flock to the New World. But his sermon to the departing Pilgrims demonstrates that their religion was, at heart, genuinely progressive in character, and their faith open-ended.

When my family joined the Pilgrims’ congregation for Sunday worship on August 10, 2008, we were treated to an inspiring sermon by Diane Stillman, the chair of the congregation’s Religious Education Committee, whose homily celebrated Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Now, it must be admitted that this church’s progressive outlook has produced some discord – and even a schism that divided the congregation. For when the congregation called Rev. James Kendall, 3rd, an avowed liberal, as its minister in 1800, the more conservative or “orthodox” of its members strenuously objected. They seceded in 1801, founding a congregation known today as the Church of the Pilgrimage. This was shortly before the 1805 appointment of Henry Ware to the Hollis Divinity Chair at Harvard, often identified as the event commencing the “Unitarian Controversy” and schism between the “orthodox” and the “liberals” of New England’s Congregationalist churches.

The First Parish Church in Plymouth is affiliated today with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, while the Church of the Pilgrimage is a member of the United Church of Christ. And although the Unitarian Universalists are decidedly more open-ended in their theology than is the United Church of Christ, the “orthodox” Congregationalists still take seriously John Robinson’s insight that revelation is not closed, and that “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” Indeed, this principle provided the inspiration for the United Church of Christ’s “God is Still Speaking” advertising campaign – a campaign that was banned by the major networks because it conflicted with the Bush Administration’s anti-gay policies.

The ads drove home the message that “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” Major networks refused to run the campaign’s initial ads because they suggested that gays and lesbians should be welcome in church. In a letter, CBS explained that because “the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks.”

Both of the Plymouth, Massachusetts, congregations that legitimately claim descent from the Mayflower Pilgrims today welcome gays and lesbians as members. And committed gay and lesbian couples may marry in either church.

United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts

We made it to the United First Parish Church of Quincy , on a weekday and took a tour of the “Church of the Presidents,” as any other tourists may – paying our respects at the crypts of President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams, President John Quincy Adams, and First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams.

The church of our nation’s second and sixth presidents first gathered in the 1630s and has been liberal in theology – that is, “Unitarian” – since the 1750s, as readers of this blog undoubtedly know from Jonathan Rowe’s posts.

It should perhaps go without saying that this too is a church where committed gay or lesbian couples are welcome to marry. Noting that “This historic church, the congregation of John Adams, author of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has a tradition of concern for individual rights and protection of the minority, extending from the early days of the Commonwealth through John Adams to the present day,” the congregation in 2004 resolved “To support the right of same-sex couples to marry and to receive all the rights and benefits of that civil institution under the laws of the Commonwealth.” Controversy erupted in 2006, when local officials ordered the church not to display a banner reading “People of Faith for Marriage Equality.” The local officials eventually relented, and the banner was hung. The church received an Community Faith in Action Award from the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry presented its for its advocacy for human rights.

Harvard University (established 1636)

Our visits to college campuses overlapped with denominational history when our daughters toured Harvard University and Tufts.

America’s oldest university, Harvard dates to 1636. By 1805, the institution was sufficiently liberal that Henry Ware was named to the Hollis Chair in Divinity – the nation’s oldest endowed chair. This would be a critical event in the growing “Unitarian Controversy,” that eventually divided New England’s Congregationalist churches between the “orthodox” or “Trinitarian” camp, and the “liberal” or “Unitarian.”

When the schism was complete, most of Massachusetts’ founding churches stood firmly in the Unitarian camp. These included the First Parish Church in Plymouth, the First Church in Salem, the First Church in Boston, and the First Parish Church in Cambridge, which first gathered in 1636 and stands on Harvard Square, across the street from the University.

Tufts University was founded in 1852 by Universalists, with its first president the Rev. Hosea Ballou, 2d. The great showman, P.T. Barnum, was another strong supporter. Yes, that P.T. Barnum, whose contribution of Jumbo the Elephant’s stuffed hide gave the university its mascot. My 14-year-old daughter Audrey was delighted by the elephants that adorn the campus – evidence of the school’s Universalist roots.

The two denominations, Unitarian and Universalist, eventually united in 1961.

First Church in Salem (gathered 1629)

For our last Sunday in Massachusetts, we joined the First Church in Salem, a congregation that first gathered in 1629, and that had some troubling issues with “witches” in 1692. As a matter of fact, a member of the congregation, Rebecca Nurse, was the first person charged with witchcraft in the hysteria of 1692. She was hanged. Another member of the congregation, Giles Corey, was pressed to death.

As it happened, the cabin on the beaver pond where my family stayed in Middleton, Massachusetts, belongs to one of Rebecca Nurse’s descendants, a member our congregation, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego.

When we joined the Salem congregation for Sunday worship services on August 17, 2008, the Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell ceded his pulpit to a member of the congregation, Dr. Rose Wolf. Dr. Wolf identified herself as “a Christian witch,” and delivered a sermon on the subject of “The Emerald Tablet and the Golden Key: Reclaiming Jesus as a Witch.”

Now, I can’t say that the rest of the congregation agreed with Dr. Wolf’s thesis, that Jesus practiced witchcraft. But that’s the thing about Unitarian Universalist churches. You don’t have to agree. Unitarain Universalist churches celebrate freedom of thought and freedom of belief – freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the pew. Unitarian Universalists don’t go to church expecting to agree with everything they hear from the pulpit – or even wanting to.

That the First Church in Salem could open its pulpit to a self-identified witch said something – as did the fact that a jubilant humanist preached a sermon on Darwinian evolution at the First Church in Plymouth. America’s founding churches are liberal churches, that encourage free thought and freedom of conscience, and that honor and celebrate human diversity even in matters of faith.

Religion and Sex in Early America

How Gender Relations and Patriarchal
Dominance Established Criminal Precedent
by Brad Hart

Having worked in law enforcement for a few years, I have maintained a strong interest in the criminal world. As a result, I occasionally enjoy a brief overview of the history and evolution of crime and punishment in ages past.

One of the most recent books on criminal history that I have read is Sharon Block’s Rape & Sexual Power in Early America, which was published in 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. In the book, Block discusses the origins, evolution and perception of sex and gender relationships during the earliest years of American colonization and revolution. Naturally, the ideas and motivations behind sexual activity in the 17th and 18th centuries were greatly influenced by the religious beliefs of those eras, which is why I have decided to post my brief review of Block’s book here.

As is the case with all sexual crime, power and control lay at the heart of the matter. In the early years of American society, however, sexual crimes such as rape and incest were routinely seen as crimes of unbridled lust and passion, in which the perpetrator was unable to bridle his desires. To make matters worse, women were regularly labeled as being the instigators of these vile acts while the men were seen as the helpless bystanders, unable to withstand the seduction of their victims. As Block states:

Although Americans wrote surprisingly frequently about rape, it remained a difficult crime to charge and to successfully prove. Early Americans often saw the violence of forced sex as an unfortunate result of sexual desire rather than the original intent of the sexual act. Passions – understood as strong feelings or emotions – remained an explanation for sexual desires into the nineteenth century, as their meaning moved from a primarily religious focus to one that combined religious and secular concerns. As a result of passions, sexual coercion was less an aberrant act of violent sexual force than an extension of normative sexual practices. A rape might begin with voluntary social or sexual offers and end with the aggressor attempting to continue normal social relations after the rape. Contrary to modern expectations, physical force did not provide a clear dividing line between coercion and consent. Consensual sex could be physically forceful (17).
Or in other words, “No means no” actually meant, “Pursue even harder.”

One of the central themes to Block’s work, which is essential to understanding sexual activity in early America, is the issue of gender relations. As Block points out, gender relations of the 17th and 18th centuries were directly tied to the patriarchal nature of religion and government. The church, which castigated women as being frivolous and undomesticated in their sexuality, placed the “evils” of sexual relations primarily on the shoulders of women. As a result, victims of rape were regularly chastised by church authorities for being too flamboyant and inviting with their sexuality. Or in other words, the women were simply “asking for it.” In addition, men were seen as the “custodians” of sex, since they could be trusted with exercising it in an "appropriate" manner. As a result, this type of “authority” became the ideal breeding ground for manipulation and domination that invited even the most reserved predator:

Some men used an array of social interactions as a springboard for sexual relations. Those forms of sexual coercion differed greatly from the archetypal stranger rape committed through brute force and grave bodily threat. Neighbors in small communities might use their everyday social relations to create opportunities for sexual force or read inappropriate socializing as evidence of a woman’s consent to subsequent sexual relations. (77).
As can be imagined, this type of gender relationship gave way to patriarchal dominance that permeated virtually every social encounter between man and woman. Whether in friendship, courtship, or marriage men could find a justification for their sexual desires.

Ethical and moral issues, like the ones brought up by Block, are difficult to discuss to say the least, but they are imperative if we hope to understand the beliefs and motivations of a given era. Understanding the criminal aspects of a society, along with what that particular society deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior, can help historians take a moral “pulse” on the past. In addition, it helps us to sift through the abundance of moral rhetoric to uncover the fragments of ethical behavior that past societies actually cherished and exhaled as being protected by God and the law. For these reasons, Sharon Block’s Rape & Sexual Power in Early America receives an A in my grade book.

My Review of Hamburger's "Separation of Church and State"

Check out this article on Separation and the Founding by Steven Waldman where he writes:

The evangelicals provided the political muscle for the efforts of Madison and Jefferson, not merely because they wanted to block official churches but because they wanted to keep the spiritual and secular worlds apart. "Religious freedom resulted from an alliance of unlikely partners," writes the eminent historian Frank Lambert in his excellent book The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. "New Light evangelicals such as Isaac Bachus and John Leland joined forces with Deists and skeptics such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to fight for a complete separation of church and state."

Now compare that to Philip Hamburger's thesis in his book, Separation of Church and State where upon examining the writings of dissenters -- "hundreds upon hundreds of dissenting petitions, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper essays, letters, and memoranda" -- Hamburger concludes the dissenters "clearly did not make separation one of their demands." (p. 63)

Well who is right? It's a complicated story. Hopefully this post will help clarify.

Hamburger's basic thesis is this: Before the early 19th Century, hardly anyone argued for religious liberty (or "religious rights") in terms of "Separation of Church and State." Rather they sought religious liberty and disestablishment, not "Separation." At this point, one hungers for a meaning of "Separation." For instance when Roger Williams first advanced the term or when Jefferson wrote about Separation to the Danbury Baptists, what did they really mean, and how would it impact real cases, especially today? Though Hamburger really doesn't answer, he would argue (in not so many words -- he could have done a better job articulating this), such an exact definition need not be given as of yet. Prior to the 19th Century, advocates for religious liberty rejected the WORDS or the PHRASE "Separation of Church and State" whatever it might mean.

However, a clear answer really would have helped. As Thomas West notes:

Sometimes Hamburger rightly emphasizes that there have been multiple meanings given to that phrase. But at other times, he speaks as though it has a univocal meaning. For example, he says that few of the founders' generation favored the separation of church and state. Yet from the many quotations that he marshals, it is clear that quite a few Americans -- and quite a few of the founders -- favored separation in the sense of banning establishments.

Historical uses of the phrase "Separation of Church and State"

Indeed, Hamburger goes through what is supposed to be an exhaustive analysis of the use of that phrase which I will summarize. Roger Williams coined a similar term ("wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world"). Williams, in mid-17th Century, was one of the first Protestant dissenters to argue for religious liberty. Yet, he also argued for "Separation." Hamburger asserts Williams's case for Separation "needs to be understood as part of his relentless quest for religious purity." (p. 51) (Hamburger demonstrates that Williams was a bit of a fanatic, obsessed with keeping true religion pure from corrupt, worldly influences.) And that "Baptists dissenters, such as John Callender in 1739 and Isaac Backus at the end of the century, had nothing but praise for Williams as an opponent of establishments, but...they said nothing about his ideas concerning...the Separation of the Church from the world." (p. 52)

Next Hamburger moves to British Whig, James Burgh, who in 1767 stated "that the less the church and the state had to do with one another, it would be the better for the both." (p.56) Later Burgh urged future inhabitants of Britain to "[b]uild an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil." (p. 57)

Then Hamburger notes a Virginia memorial of 1783 from the General Association of Separate Baptists who prayed "that no law may pass, to connect the church & State in the future." (p. 58) Yet, that was the only instance they used such a phrase in the 18th Century.

Hamburger also identifies the Marquis de Condorcet of France, who in 1785 advanced a theory to "separate religion from the State." (p. 60) And Thomas Paine who in 1794 in The Age of Reason Paine wrote of "the adulterous connection of Church and State." Finally Hamburger notes the "notorious Unitarian" Joseph Priestly who (quoting Hamburger) "acknowledged the sociological connection between church and state but denied that it any longer justified an establishment." (p. 75) Priestly's argument, according to Hamburger, "required all of the dexterity and doctrinal laxity for which he was infamous...." (Ibid)

So how does Hamburger deal with these historical uses of the phrase? These thinkers

failed to persuade...their contemporaries to adopt any such idea. American religious dissenters were not shy about demanding their freedom....[T]hey wrote incessantly about their religious liberty and created a highly successful popular movement to achieve this end. Accordingly, if the separation of church and state had been one of their demands, one would expect to find this principle discussed repeatedly in their writings. (p. 63)

Upon examining the writings of dissenters -- "hundreds upon hundreds of dissenting petitions, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper essays, letters, and memoranda" -- Hamburger concludes the dissenters "clearly did not make separation one of their demands." (Ibid) Finally, Hamburger notes it is intuitive that dissenters wouldn't demand Separation because the position "seemed to evince hostility toward churches and their clergy." (p. 64)

Hamburger asserts that the phrase "Separation of Church and State" became popular in political parlance after 1800 specifically as a way for Republicans to silence Jefferson's Federalist clergy critics, who were preaching against him from the pulpit. So for instance when we see New York Republican Tunis Worthman's admonition to Christians given in 1800 that "it is your duty, as Christians, to maintain the purity and independence of the church, to keep religion separate from politics, to prevent an union between the church and the state, and to preserve your clergy from temptation, corruption, and reproach..." (p. 121), we are reading, according to Hamburger, not sincere convictions, but a clever political argument attempting to browbeat clergy into silence.

Hamburger is very hard on Jefferson, a man "bolder with a pen than a sword" (p. 145), whom Hamburger essentially accuses of being a sophist intent on manipulating words to fit his political desires and anticlerical prejudices. Hamburger notes that the Danbury Baptists, far from celebrating his "Separation of Church and State" letter, ignored it.

Madison too, doesn't escape Hamburger's criticisms. Indeed, Madison talked of "Separation" as a way of understanding religious rights. Hamburger notes among other things, Madison's Detached Memoranda and his 1822 letter to Edward Livingston where Madison states: "Every new and successful example...of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together."

Hamburger frames Madison's call for "Separation" by viewing it, not as a proper understanding of the First Amendment, but as part of an evolving Republican tradition, indeed, one that didn't start to evolve until after 1800 and whose genesis was to silence Federalist clergy.

Problems with Hamburger's Thesis

As Thomas West alludes, there is a semantical problem with his thesis. He is too hung up on the phrase "Separation of Church and State." While it may be true that such particular phrase wasn't commonly used before 1800, religious dissenters did support other phrases and concepts which more or less meant (or plausibly meant) the same thing.

Religious dissenters asked for more than just religious liberty. As Hamburger notes, they also sought some type of equality under the law. And they did endorse Madison's "no cognizance" standard ("that Religion is wholly exempt from [civil society's] cognizance") from his Memorial and Remonstrance. And dissenters supported Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which revolutionary work receives only cursory treatment in Hamburger's book. Hamburger notes Madison's "no cognizance" standard is "quite different from a separation of church and state." Yet, even Robert Bork, in this absolutely fawning review of Hamburger's book, states "[i]n his 1785 'Memorial and Remonstrance,' [Madison] argued that religion and government should have nothing to do with each other." So it appears that dissenters did endorse something like separation even if not commonly expressed in so many words.

Hamburger and Bork reply that the language in the Establishment Clause is less sweeping than Madison's "no cognizance" standard.

Madison's argument in 1785 seems to be that whenever government and religion get involved with one another, strife will invariably ensue because government ends up supporting *some* kind of religion to the detriment of others. As he writes in the Memorial:

Because [A Bill for Establishing a Provision for the Teachers of the Christian Religion] will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.

Which leads to another criticism: Though Hamburger's examination of 18th Century uses of the phrase "Separation" was supposed to be exhaustive, apparently it was not. In reading James H. Hutson's quote book, I caught a quotation by John Dickinson from 1768, not mentioned by Hamburger, which argues for separation for very similar reasons given in the Memorial and Remonstrance:

Religion and Government are certainly very different Things, instituted for different Ends; the design of one being to promote our temporal Happiness; the design of the other to procure the Favour of God, and thereby the Salvation of our Souls. While these are kept distinct and apart, the Peace and welfare of Society is preserved, and the Ends of both are answered. By mixing them together, feuds, animosities and persecutions have been raised, which have deluged the World in Blood, and disgraced human Nature.

John Dickinson, writing over the signature, "A.B" Pennsylvania Journal, May 12, 1768.

I seriously wonder how Hamburger would explain that away, which is what he does whenever confronted with the numerous uses of the phrase "Separation of Church and State," minimizing their importance, explaining them away by the use of context.

How to understand the principle of "Separation of Church and State" in the Constitution:

One value that Hamburger's book offers (and Akhil Amar's book on the Bill of Rights) is that it shows "Separation of Church and State" really doesn't work as an individual right, which is how the Supreme Court, post-Everson uses it.

Clearly, the US Constitution does separate Church and State in the same way that it Separates the Powers in government. Such a Separation of Church and State is not just found in the Establishment Clause, but in the Free Exercise Clause, Art. VI's "No Religious Tests Clause," and the fact that religion is left entirely unendowed in a Constitution of very limited enumerated powers. Yet, Separation of Powers is not an absolute rule and it is not an individual right either. We can say the same about Separation of Church and State.

Individual rights, especially those that are incorporated through the 14th Amendment against state and local governments, are best understood as liberty and equality rights. Whereas the Free Exercise Clause clearly relates to a liberty right, the Establishment Clause and the doctrine of Separation of Church and State have often been used to vindicate religious equality rights. Perhaps it would be better then, if, as Akhil Amar argues, the Equal Protection Clause is used to vindicate such claims (the Supreme Court has an odd history of doing the right thing through the wrong clause -- for instance, incorporating the Bill of Rights through the Due Process Clause, when the Privileges or Immunities Clause is where incorporation is supposed to occur).

(See Phillip Munoz's argument that Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance posits such a non-discrimination standard.)

Such a non-discrimination standard would mandate government neutrality between the religions (both the conventional and unconventional ones) and, if atheism and agnosticism count as "religions," which they probably do, between religion and irreligion. This already looks similar to what the Supreme Court, post Everson, has the Establishment Clause doing.

But such a standard would allow, indeed would mandate that religion not be excluded from government aid programs, offered on generally applicable (secular) grounds, with school vouchers as the classic example.

To conclude, whatever side of the divide one is on, because of its meticulous research and challenging assertions, this book belongs in the collection of any serious student of the history of the Establishment Clause and the doctrine of Separation of Church and State.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Timothy Sandefur explains that the name "Cato" from the Cato Institute is taken from the historical figure of antiquity and is not an acronym:

The Institute is named after Cato's Letters, a series of classical liberal papers written by Trenchard and Gordon, who used the pseudonym Cato in honor of Cato the Younger, the stalwart defender of republican Rome. Cato, along with Pompey, fought against Caesar in the Roman Civil War. When it became clear that Caesar would be victorious, Cato retired to his rooms and stabbed himself in the gut with a dagger. The wound was not fatal, and a surgeon was called to sew him up, but when the surgeon left and the family let him alone to rest, Cato tore open the stitches and ripped out his intestines with his hands rather than live in a Rome governed by Caesar's dictatorship.

He became a symbol of republican virtue for the American patriots. Joseph Addison wrote a play about him, which became George Washington's favorite play, and a line from it was quoted by Nathan Hale when he was executed by the redcoats as a Patriot spy: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country."

Of course, when I wrote the biography of George Washington for Cato's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism I stressed just how that play profoundly influenced Washington's Stoic sense of honor.

But this also speaks of another interesting dynamic: While I don't know of Nathan Hale's religion, and while I personally have concluded Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, Patrick Henry I do believe clearly was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. And, he too was profoundly influenced by Addison's play. Indeed, Henry's famous "give me liberty or give me death" line was practically taken from this pagan source.

Some sympathetic to a "Christian America" reading of history have noted that even the supposed "Deists" like Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by a "Christian worldview." And no doubt that's true. However, the converse is also true: Even the "Christians" like Patrick Henry were influenced by a non-Christian Enlightenment and a noble pagan (Greco-Roman) worldview. Indeed the notion of give me political liberty or give me death has nothing to do with the Bible or the orthodox Christian religion. And Cato, the figure from pagan antiquity, committed suicide as a matter of principle, a blatantly UNCHRISTIAN act.

Mormon Debate At First Things

Outstanding debate between a Mormon and an orthodox Christian at First Things. As my readers know I think Mormonism is a good analogy to the religious creed of America's key Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and others]. All of them, including Jefferson and Franklin, were more likely to identify as "Christians" in some sense than "Deists" (although they may not have viewed these concepts as mutually exclusive; a popular definition of Deism at the time of the Founding was simple belief in one God, meaning all God believers were "Deists," not a very meaningful definition; hence Jefferson could speak of the "Deism" of the Jews). Mormons too consider themselves "Christian." Yet Mormon belief is inconsistent with enough orthodoxy that orthodox Christians claim "this isn't Christianity." Ditto with the religious beliefs of America's key Founders. In short, if Mormons can't pass the "Christian" test, then neither could (or likely could) Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and many other Founding Fathers.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

James Madison and Samuel Clarke

See this past post where I noted that James Madison was not a Christian, but a theistic rationalist. While very reticent to give the personal details of his creed, his most explicit discussion on the matter comes from his letter TO FREDERICK BEASLEY, November 20, 1825. Madison noted that in order to fully do justice to a theological work he'd have to "resort to the celebrated work of Dr. Clarke," which he "read fifty years ago...." Madison's philosophical argument for God is as follows:

The finiteness of the human understanding betrays itself on all subjects, but more especially when it contemplates such as involve infinity. What may safely be said seems to be, that the infinity of time & space forces itself on our conception, a limitation of either being inconceivable; that the mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect, which augments, instead of avoiding the difficulty; and that it finds more facility in assenting to the self-existence of an invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom & goodness, than to the self-existence of the universe, visibly destitute of those attributes, and which may be the effect of them. In this comparative facility of conception & belief, all philosophical Reasoning on the subject must perhaps terminate.

Even at an old age, his mind is still very lucid. Though he read it 50 years prior, he still follows Clarke's argument quite closely. From Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The main lines of Clarke's argument are as follows. Since something exists now, something has always existed, otherwise nothing would exist now because nothing comes from nothing. What has existed from eternity can only be either an independent being, that is, one having in itself the reason of its existence, or an infinite series of dependent beings. However, such a series cannot be the being that has existed from eternity because by hypothesis it can have no external cause, and no internal cause (no dependent being in it) can cause the whole series. Hence, an independent being exists.

Clarke was an Anglican Divine, an Arian heretic, and a philosophical rationalist. Here is the Encyclopedia on his Arian heresy:

In 1712, apparently against the advice of some of Queen Anne's ministers, Clarke published The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, which was accused of Arianism, the view that Christ is divine but created. The ensuing controversy culminated two years later in his humiliating promise to the Upper House of Convocation not to preach or write on the topic any longer. However, this act of submission did not silence the correct rumors that he, like Newton himself, was still an Arian. How much these suspicions of heterodoxy damaged his ecclesiastical career is unclear. However, Voltaire reports that Bishop Gibson effectively prevented Clarke's elevation to the see of Canterbury by pointing out that Clarke was indeed the most learned and honest man in the kingdom, but had one defect: he was not a Christian.

I should note too that John Witherspoon, though a Calvinist/orthodox Christian, actually introduced Madison and his other students to Samuel Clarke's work at Princeton. Witherspoon was greatly influenced by Locke and the religious rationalists of the Enlightenment who were disproportionately non-Trinitarians. Witherspoon was not, contrary to misperceptions, teaching his students to be good orthodox Trinitarian Christians at Princeton, though that is what he preached from the pulpit. On matters of government, Witherspoon, first and foremost, taught his students to be good Whig-republicans.

Friday, September 26, 2008

More Orthodox Christians Who "Get It"

This time from the White Horse Inn. These orthodox Christians of the evangelical bent are well informed on the American Founding. They entitle the program "American Deism" and term Founders like Jefferson and J. Adams "Deists." I might disagree with them terming these Founders "Deists," but they recognize the "Christian-Deism" (as David L. Holmes terms it) of the key Founders confuses modern evangelical Christians in a way that the non-Christian Deism of Thomas Paine does not. The hard Deists like Paine wanted little if anything to do with Christianity and Jesus, so you tend not to see them saying nice things about the Christian Religion. Men like Washington, J. Adams and yes, Jefferson and Franklin, on the other hand appreciated Christianity for its moral teachings only and either bitterly rejected orthodox Trinitarian doctrines (like Jefferson and Adams did) or otherwise totally ignored them (like Washington and Madison did). So when we see these key Founders saying nice things about the Christian religion, it's always in the context of the morality that it engenders and never about the need for Christ as a personal savior or as One who makes a blood Atonement. Many evangelicals therefore mistakenly conclude these Founders were real orthodox Christians when they weren't. And figures like David Barton, Peter Marshall, the late D. James Kennedy, William Federer, and Worldview Weekend are primarily to blame for the confusion.

The program also notes, rightly so, that building a "cult" around the supposed Christianity of these Founding Fathers isn't good for the purity of the orthodox evangelical religion.

Finally the program mentions the phenomenon of moralistically therapeutic Deism which surveys show is the dominant religion among the younger folks in Christian Churches. MTD is not all that different than the theistic rationalism of America's key Founders, except the modern version doesn't have the thought out philosophical underpinnings that Jefferson and Adams attached to it. This is important to note because many conclude that the "Deism" of the Founding disappeared when it never really did. It's alive and well in the nominal Christianity of the 80% of Americans who define themselves as "Christian."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Second Coming of Salem?

Ok, I know that I am going to catch heat for this, but I still think it is worth discussing. Sarah Palin's Alaskan pastor, Reverend Thomas Muthee, apparently believes in demonic possession and witchcraft. I guess the Republicans were jealous of the fact that Obama was the only candidate with a controversial pastor. I think that I am beginning to agree with fellow blogger Tom Van Dyke when he states that not much has changed (in terms of religion) from the founding generation to today. Looks to me like we still have overzealous pastors attempting to influence our candidates. The only difference I see is that Washington, Jefferson, etc. didn't give in to the demands of their pastors. As Jon Rowe has pointed out regularly on this blog, Washington ignored the admonitions of Bishop White, Dr. Abercrombie, etc. And as Brad Hart has stated, it is as if religion is a "must-have" for today's candidates. Turning a blind eye to one's faith or pastor just doesn't fly in 21st century American politics.

Here are the videos. Thanks to Brad Hart for sending them my way:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

James Wilson, Theistic Rationalist

James Wilson was (or likely was), like the other key Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) a theistic rationalist, as opposed to a strict deist or orthodox Christian.

Wilson in his Works expressed a nuanced and often oddly interesting view on reason and revelation which points to his belief in theistic rationalism. While orthodox Christians believe the Bible is infallible and man's reason is subservient to revelation, and while strict deists believed all revelation is false and God revealed Himself only through nature discoverable by man's reason, theistic rationalists believed God revealed Himself primarily (not exclusively) through nature, not scripture, and as such only partially inspired the Bible. As Dr. Frazer put it in his seminal article on the subject, "revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God."

What follows, some of Wilson's quotations that support theistic rationalism:

Wilson believed God revealed Himself through both nature and scripture. Wilson seemed to view both reason and revelation as, by themselves, incomplete, and put together largely complementary. From his Works, Volume I:

[H]ow shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.

However, as a theistic rationalist, he believes reason is primary:

[F]or obligation is nothing more than a restriction of liberty produced by reason. Reason, then, independent of law, is sufficient to impose some obligation on man, and to establish a system of morality and duty.82


Reason, say they, is the first rule of man, the first principle of morality, and the immediate cause of all primitive obligation. But man being necessarily dependent on his Creator, who has formed him with wisdom and design, and who, in creating him, has proposed some particular ends; the will of God is another rule of human actions, another principle of morality, obligation, and duty. On this distinction, the kinds of obligation, external and internal, are founded. These two principles must be united, in order to form a complete system of morality, really founded on the nature and state of man. As a rational being, he is subject to reason: as a creature of God, to his supreme will. Thus, reason and the divine will are perfectly reconciled, are naturally connected, and are strengthened by their junction.85

Wilson then notes why "reason" can establish law is because God has imbued man with a "moral sense."

This moral sense, from its very nature, is intended to regulate and control all our other powers. It governs our passions as well as our actions. Other principles may solicit and allure; but the conscience assumes authority, it must be obeyed. Of this dignity and commanding nature we are immediately conscious, as we are of the power itself. It estimates what it enjoins, not merely as superiour in degree, but as superiour likewise in kind, to what is recommended by our other perceptive powers. Without this controlling faculty, endowed as we are with such a variety of senses and interfering desires, we should appear a fabrick destitute of order but possessed of it, all our powers maybe harmonious and consistent; they may all combine in one uniform and regular direction.

In short; if we had not the faculty of perceiving certain things in conduct to be right, and others to be wrong; and of perceiving our obligation to do what is right, and not to do what is wrong; we should not be moral and accountable beings.

When Wilson discusses revelation, he makes clear Scripture's role is to support reason and conscience, not the other way around. The context makes clear that reason is primary, revelation secondary:

Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive. Great and sublime truths, indeed, would appear to a few; but the world, at large, would be dark and ignorant. The mass of mankind would resemble a chaos, in which a few sparks, that would diffuse a glimmering light, would serve only to show, in a more striking manner, the thick darkness with which they are surrounded. Their weakness is strengthened, their darkness is illuminated, their influence is enlarged by that heaven-descended science, which has brought life and immortality to light. In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce his laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.

Next, notice what Wilson earmarks as the revelation's most important teachings:

On some important subjects, those in particular, which relate to the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state, our natural knowledge is greatly improved, refined, and exalted by that which is revealed. On these subjects, one who has had the advantage of a common education in a christian country, knows more, and with more certainty, than was known by the wisest of the ancient philosophers.

Not things like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement or other creeds central to orthodox Christianity in which Wilson gives no indication that he believes; but rather "the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state," things first knowable from nature or reason, and which revelation's role is to "improve[], refine[], and exalt[]."

Interesting, Wilson next seems to almost elevate the scripture to a level of supremacy: "Thus it is with regard to reason, conscience, and the holy scriptures. Where the latter give instructions, those instructions are supereminently authentick."

But then claims scripture is deficient and repeats his assertion that scripture was not designed as God's primary revelation to man, but as a secondary revelation to man in what he already knows from reason and conscience:

But whoever expects to find, in [Scripture], particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.

Wilson then notes, reason and revelation largely operate together, but reason is supreme:

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense. The information with regard to our duties and obligations, drawn from these different sources, ought not to run in unconnected and diminished channels: it should flow in one united stream, which, by its combined force and just direction, will impel us uniformly and effectually towards our greatest good.

Finally, one reason I don't think Wilson believed the Bible infallible or inerrant is he then denies the possibility of miracles:

The law of nature is immutable; not by the effect of an arbitrary disposition, but because it has its foundation in the nature, constitution, and mutual relations of men and things. While these continue to be the same, it must continue to be the same also. This immutability of nature's laws has nothing in it repugnant to the supreme power of an all-perfect Being. Since he himself is the author of our constitution; he cannot but command or forbid such things as are necessarily agreeable or disagreeable to this very constitution. He is under the glorious necessity of not contradicting himself. This necessity, far from limiting or diminishing his perfections, adds to their external character, and points out their excellency.

Final final comment: Even though Wilson, like Blackstone whom he cites a few times in Works, tips his epistemological hat to scripture in a few places, Wilson and Blackstone hardly ever actually cite scripture in their works. For all of their dithering on reason and revelation and which is supposed to do what, the overwhelming majority of Wilson's and Blackstone's works are not the product of scripture, but rather, of reasoning.

As Gary North provocatively put it when talking about Blackstone in this regard:

[H]e then spent four volumes describing English common law with only a few footnote references to the Bible. In the first three volumes, running almost 500 pages each, each has one footnote reference to the Bible. The fourth volume, on criminal law(Public Wrongs), has ten references. Not one of them is taken by Blackstone as authoritative for civil law; they were seen merely as historical examples. There is not a single reference to “Bible,” “Moses,” or “Revelation” in the set’s index.

...Englishmen commonly tipped the brim of their epistemological caps to God and the Bible, but they did not take off their caps in the presence of God....It was considered sufficient for Blackstone to have formally equated biblical law with natural law. Having done so, he could then safely ignore biblical law.


This raises another question: Was Blackstone in fact deliberately lying? In a perceptive essay by David Berman, we learn of a strategy that had been in use for over a century: combating a position by supporting it with arguments that are so weak that they in fact prove the opposite....If he was not lying, then he was naive beyond description, for his lame defense of biblical revelation greatly assisted the political triumph of the enemies of Christianity in the American colonies.

A Few Notes on Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley, the British Divine and co-discoverer of oxygen, greatly influenced America's key Founders. Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin credited him as something of a spiritual mentor. And he likely influenced many other Founders as well. Fellow American Creation blogger Eric Alan Isaacson a little while back sent along the following note (which he left in this comment earlier) on Priestley's influence:

Priestley’s son recounted:

“It was a source of great satisfaction to him, and what he had little previous reason to expect, that his lectures were attended by very crowded audiences, including most of the members of the Congress of the United States at that time assembled at Philadelphia, and of the executive offices of the government of the United States.”

-- Joseph Priestley, Jr., A Continuation of the Memoirs of Dr. Joseph Priestley (Written by his Son Joseph Priestley), in John T. Boyer, ed., The Memoirs of Joseph Priestley, at 144 (Washington, D.C.: Barcroft Press, 1964).

Priestley was the preeminent expositor of rationalist unitarianism. His unitarianism was not well received by the masses; he was sort of an Abbie Hoffman type of his age -- popular in certain influential circles only, but whose ideas were too controversial for mass appeal. Indeed, in England, a mob burned down Priestley's home over his controversial ideas, after which he fled to America for refuge. That Priestley's religious system presented itself under the auspices of "Christianity," I think, probably made it somewhat easier to sell to the many elite figures who followed him than if it rejected the Christian label and termed itself "Deism" or something of the like.

However, whether his beliefs should be understood as "Christian" at all is debatable. (Again, Mormonism is the proper analogy. Someone who doesn't think Mormonism merits the label "Christian," probably likewise wouldn't think Priestley's "Unitarian Christianity" merits the label either. One could cite Lincoln who once noted calling a dog's tail a 5th leg doesn't make it so.) It rejected, among other things, original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, and plenary inspiration of scripture as "corruptions of Christianity." Only the rational parts of scripture -- those that passed the "reason" smell test -- were legitimately revealed. Surprisingly, Priestley accepted some miracles recorded in the Bible -- the "rational" ones.

Priestley did believe in the Resurrection of Jesus whom he regarded as fully human, albiet perfect and on a divine mission (hence Priestley was Socinian). As such Priestley rejected that Jesus Christ as God made an infinite Atonement for the sins of man, but regarded the Resurrection as the action of a benevolent God doing for the most perfect man what he one day will do for all men.

More importantly, Priestley regarded the Resurrection as rational. And all religious beliefs, including the miraculous, must meet the test of rationality in order to be true.

Priestley's importance is his disproportionate influence on the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and who framed the Constitution of the United States. Understanding his influence is key to understanding the political theology of America's Founding.

Gordon on Orthodoxy and Christian America

"T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and associate professor of religion at Grove City College (Grove City, Pennsylvania)." He writes a good article that explores issue of orthodoxy and Christian America. On "Christian America" he writes:

Especially surprising, in this regard, is the amount of effort expended at attempting to prove that our early Republic was intentionally "a Christian nation" or that the individual Founders were Christian believers. (3) This surprises me not only because the existent documents appear to be at best inconclusive, but also because it would mean nothing anyway. The accidents of history can never oblige us; and even if the Founders had intended to establish a Christian nation (whatever that might mean), we would be under no obligation whatsoever to continue the experiment in our generation, unless we (the populace as a whole) believed there was value to it. To illustrate: The Founders also plainly intended to permit the African slave trade to continue for the foreseeable future without federal interference. Does this mean we should resurrect the practice today? Of course not; it was a horrible idea then, and would remain a horrible idea today.

And on George Washington's creed in particular he writes:

There are many sources for this. In popular media, one naturally thinks of the late D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge; and at a more academic level, the 1,200-page treatise by Dr. Peter Lillback of Westminster Seminary, George Washington's Sacred Fire. My own opinion is much more of that associated with Michael Novak (Washington's God), Paul F. Boller, Jr. (George Washington and Religion), or my colleague Gary Scott Smith (Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush), each of which describes Washington as neither a conventional orthodox Christian nor a conventional Deist, but some kind of a hybrid between them who believed in a Supreme Being who acts in history (unlike a strict Deist), who almost never mentioned Christ, and certainly never mentioned any redemption achieved by him (unlike a genuinely orthodox Christian). I am content to think of him, as Dr. Smith does, as a "theistic rationalist."

One pleasant thing I've discovered covering the "Christian America" controversy is that that thesis doesn't speak well to many notable evangelical scholars.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mike Potemra is Wrong

Fellow blogger Tom Van Dyke has posted below the viewpoint of Mike Potemra, who concludes that renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens is somehow a believer. Mr. Potemra, though elegant in his prose, is essentially attempting to grab a falling knife. His conclusion is ridiculous. Hitchens (along with most atheists of the past who have had their beliefs altered to show that they are somehow believers) categorically denies the existence of God. In addition, he goes further to suggest that any notion or belief in God is a terrible thing:

While this has little to do with America's founding, I thought it was appropriate in light of Mr. Potemra's ridiculous claim.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What is God, Anyway?

This isn't exactly The Founding, but it touches on so many of the theological discussions in our comments sections lately, I thought it might be helpful for clarity's sake. Plus, I don't think things have changed all that much from the Founding era.

National Review Online writer Mike Potemra gives us the shocking news:

Christopher Hitchens Does Believe in God!

[H]aving just attended a discussion between Hitchens and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete at New York's Pierre Hotel, I think his case is even more interesting than that. In the course of the discussion, Hitchens claimed not to be a reductionist; he said mankind cannot do without the "numinous" and (I think this was his other phrase) the "transcendent." (He located this in, for example, Verdi's "Requiem.")

Now the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God. Hitchens says what he doesn't believe in is the "supernatural" — but that's merely a quibble about words. If you use the word "nature" — as so many people do — as interchangeable with "what is" or "being," then God is not "super-natural" at all, because — as Aquinas, chiefly, reminds us — God is the pure act of Being itself, Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

Many times during the debate, Hitchens ranted (it's not too strong a word; I was there) against religions. And just as often, Msgr. Albacete responded, "I couldn't agree with you more."


Finally, and ironically, what Hitchens is is not an atheist at all, but a Puritan — and I have good news for him: When he meets the real God, he will not be disappointed. He will not feel "oppressed" by a celestial "Big Brother;" he will find the one in whom we cannot rest "until we rest in thee" (to quote another famous person who converted). And he'll finally have mercy on believers — we were, after all, doing our best.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hard Truths & Noble Lies

[I am going to excerpt part of a post I did at Positive Liberty. Because the entire theme extends beyond religion & the Founding, I'll only include that portion which relates to this blog's theme. You can read the whole thing here.]

As my readers know, I like to deconstruct the idea of a "Christian Nation," to expose the tensions between America's Founding ideals and traditional biblical Christianity and to show how many notable Founders turned out to be not "real" (meaning orthodox Trinitarian) Christians after all. In fairness to me, I didn't let this cat out of the bag and the secular historical academy is to the left of me. You see, much of this was taboo during the Founding era until the 20th Century. That Christianity and republicanism were perfectly compatible and that men like George Washington were pious Christians was a "noble lie" that much of the American public for many years believed. I'd remind folks the record clearly shows inveterate noble liars like Parson Weems making things up out of whole cloth about George Washington's Christianity. Liars like Mason Weems had a better public reputation than did truth tellers like Washington's own minister Rev. Abercrombie who had to request anonymity when he wrote of Washington's systematic avoidance of communion:

I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace. This, Sir, is all that I think it proper to state on paper. In a conversation, more latitude being allowed, more light might, perhaps, be thrown upon it. I trust, however, Sir, you will not introduce my name in print.

The uber-orthodox Christian Rev. James Renwick Willson was burned in effigy (presumably by other orthodox Christians) in 1832 when he told the truth that according to orthodox standards the early American Founders/Presidents weren't "Christians" but "unitarians" and "infidels."

Often public perception is based on a noble lie and the truth tellers are "tabloid deconstructionists." Most of America, for instance, at one time believed Rock Hudson was straight. But we now know the "secret minority," not mass consensus was right on Hudson's sexuality. We could easily imagine one of Mr. Hudson's family members or close friends, back in the 1950s, lying to protect his reputation. Keep in mind when Nelly Custis testified to her adopted father's Christianity, it was in the context of protecting his public reputation when the tabloids of the day were chattering:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.

Now, if she believed Washington was privately what the orthodox would have termed a "heretic," an "infidel," or otherwise not a "real Christian" would she have answered any differently?

Understanding the God of the Pledge

Joe Carter and John Coleman are two traditionalist Christian thinkers who well understand the issue of civil religion and the Pledge of Allegiance and they've written excellent articles on the matter. See Carter's and Coleman's (which cites Carter's). Whatever the merits of Michael Newdow's legal case, and whatever the policy merits of keeping God in or taking God out, it's important to understand what "under God" means. And it's not under the Christian God or even under the "Judeo-Christian" God, but rather under the God of the American Civil religion, which is under the God of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin (who thought Hindus and Muslims worshipped the same God Jews and Christians do). And they in turn whether they consciously knew it (arguably they didn't) followed Rousseau's plan.

Carter notes something profoundly important. There probably ARE many Christians who DO think it's under their God. And they are either ignorant or fooled. This same dynamic existed during the Founding era when the first four Presidents spoke to a Christian populace speaking as though they worshipped the same God. And then spoke to Native Americans...and acted as though they worshipped the same God (the "Great Spirit"). Carter writes:

America has done a fine job of incorporating Rousseau's "dogmas of civil religion", keeping them "few, simple, and exactly worded." We have restricted such sentiments to the most unobtrusive areas, allowing "In God We Trust' to be printed on our coins and the phrase "under God" to slip in our Pledge of Allegiance (which, curiously, isn't a pledge of "allegiance" to God but to a flag). We allow recognition for a "Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence" but what we don't allow is the recognition of the Christian God. And that is what should give Christians pause.

There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America's civil religion and Christianity. If we claim that "under God" refers only to the Christian conception of God we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that the Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist is claiming to be under the same deity as we are? We can't claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the "unknown god" they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Pledge is, after all, a secular document and the "under god" is referring to the Divinity of our country's civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.

Coleman recognizes that "under God" is a quasi-secular, not an authentically biblical idea. But the irony is the quasi-secular thinkers of the Founding era (America's key Founders) were the ones who gave us this generic civil religion because they thought "under" a generic "God" was a glue that could hold society together. Now the secularists like Newdow are on the other side. As he writes:

That is why, for generations, the Michael Newdows of this world recognized that acknowledging a generic higher power was helpful, not harmful to the citizenry. It held the nation together. It calmed the populace. It united us under a creed. To the irreligious (like many of our Founders) hollow recitations of Under God would seem paltry penance for the benefits afforded by state religion's civil unity.

To the devout, however, "under God" may pose a more serious moral threat. One of the most basic tenets of both Judaism and Christianity is Yahweh's statement in the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me;" yet every day millions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews stand first, not to pray to the God of Mohammed or of the Cross, but to pledge allegiance to the god of city, state, and country.

Both articles demand serious thinking. Make sure you check them out.

Jefferson Calls the Trinity a Three-Headed Monster

From his letter to Rev. James Smith, December 8, 1822:

No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity; and was among the efficacious doctrines which gave it triumph over the polytheism of the ancients, sickened with the absurdities of their own theology. Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted from the Christian creed by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs....In fact, the Athanasian paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself. He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.

The entire thing is worth a read.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Stop Me if You've Heard This One...

A rabbi, a priest, and an atheist walk into a bar.

The rabbi says, "I believe in God."

The priest says, "So do I."

The atheist says, "I don't."

Everybody here understands the other. Now, if you plug a Hindu or a Buddhist into this story, it doesn't work too well, but there weren't many of them around at the time of the Founding.

Sometimes, we make this stuff too obtuse.

Pledging Allegiance to the Philosophers' God

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

– John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson’s, “The Founders on Religion,” p. 132.

The strongest argument for letting the "under God" in the pledge pass constitutional muster is that natural rights Founding era documents invoke such a God, and as such, making a public recitation of the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional would yield perverse results. [And the other side properly notes making a group of people "pledge allegiance" to a God has a coercive element that would be missing from mere government endorsement of the theistic Declaration of Independence.]

Kevin Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, whom we've seen debate Michael Newdow, makes what I think a very good historical and philosophical argument for his side. And that is the God of natural rights is the God of nature, not the God of the Bible or not necessarily the God of the Bible. America's Founders believed in granting religious freedom for all. And they reasoned, you couldn't have religious freedom if the natural rights source for that unalienable right was a sectarian (i.e., "Christian") deity. Hence the invocation of a generic, non-sectarian deity: Nature's God.

The term "nature" as was used during America's Founding era (and still today) meant discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by scripture and as such, "Nature's God" is God insofar as we can discern His existence and determine His attributes from reason unassisted by revelation. (See the above Adams' quotation.)

It's amusing to see one of Roy Moore's cronies struggle with this conception. He quotes the New York Sun article:

[T]he God in the pledge is the same God referred to in the Declaration of Independence, but is not the deity in the Bible. “It wasn’t the Christian God. It wasn’t the Jewish God. It was the philosopher’s God,” Mr. Hasson said. He said the “under God” reference refers to a creator early philosophers and scientists like Aristotle concluded “could be known by reason alone.”

And he reacts:

Mr. Hasson has the honor of making an argument that I can unequivocally state I have never heard in any previous Establishment Clause case. He is actually claiming that the God referenced in the Pledge is not the God of the Bible, but rather is some amorphous “philosopher’s God.”

That Mr. Jones has never heard of this argument before simply shows that he hasn't done his homework. He either hasn't studied the historical documents on this issue, or if he has, his analysis is confused by the specious arguments put forth by the likes of Roy Moore.

It would be a mistake, however, to try to exclude the Biblical God from this conception. Rather, a prime reason why America's Founders turned to "nature" and not "scripture" to ground America's public creed was to be inclusive. Natural theology was a lingua franca (a link language) in which orthodox trinitarians, unitarians, theistic rationalists and deists all could speak.

For a good place to learn how the Founding era viewed the concept of "natural religion" (that is what man can discern about God's universe through reason unassisted by scripture), google the terms "natural religion" and "Dudleian Lectures." As will be seen, some orthodox trinitarian Christians did promote the concept of "natural religion," for instance Samuel Langdon, John Witherspoon, and many others. But when they indulged in this theology, note, they stayed true to its method, which was, again, what man discovers from reason unassisted by revelation. When orthodox Christians indulged in natural theology, they found reason and revelation perfectly agreed. Deists, on the other hand, found that natural theology didn't at all agree with what is revealed in scripture. And theistic rationalist/unitarians found that sometimes reason and revelation agreed, sometimes they didn't.

But in the end, natural theology is defined as what man discovers from reason, and when it came time to declare independence, America turned to the laws of nature and nature's God, not what is revealed in scripture.